After the close and exciting win over the Los Angeles Chargers, fans of the Dallas Cowboys had a lot of good emotions. One of the biggest was relief. It was a badly needed bounce back from their embarrassment the week before at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers, and it took advantage of the surprising losses by the Niners and the Philadelphia Eagles the day before. While it was too early for it to really be so, this also felt very much like a game that could have sent the entire season into that spiral on the way down the toilet.
Since the beginning of the real games this year, we have been trying to figure out exactly what this edition of the Cowboys really is. After the first third of the season is in the books, we ought to know.
Unfortunately, we are still scratching our heads. Looking back at the games, it is like this team has multiple personalities. Let’s take a deep breath and try to grasp what we have seen so far.
They started out against the New York Giants looking like world-beaters, scoring touchdowns in every phase of the game while completely shutting down their opponent. It had us riding high, and things still looked good the next week against the New York Jets. However, there were some warning signs in those games. Both opponents featured beleaguered quarterbacks and a host of mistakes that were easy to exploit. And the Jets game saw the ugly problem of scoring touchdowns in the red zone rear its head - and it wasn’t going to go away.
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That flaw of Mike McCarthy’s offense was probably the biggest reason the team had its first major stumble against the Arizona Cardinals. After going two of six versus the Jets, they were only one for five in the desert, including a failed fourth-down attempt and Dak Prescott’s first interception of the season. Those failures cost them perhaps 22 points, which could have changed the outcome of the game. There also was an impression that this game got in the heads of the players. For reasons that make little or no sense, Arizona just finds ways to win against Dallas despite almost always having an inferior roster, at least on paper. Sports media, especially the part that is more concerned with creating controversy to draw attention, paints the Cowboys as a soft team, and this game just added fuel to that fire.
Dallas needed to come up with a positive response after that mess. Fortunately the next game saw them back at AT&T Stadium against the struggling New England Patriots, and they were able to get a relatively easy win. The defense in particular stood up, contributing two scores on a fumble return and a pick six. However, the red zone issue was still alive and well as they only got one TD in four trips.
The next contest saw them traveling to the Bay Area to face the San Francisco 49ers, arguably the best team in the NFC. It was an unmitigated disaster. The defense had no answer for Kyle Shanahan’s offense, Prescott threw three interceptions, and the offense never even got into the red zone. They also lost both Leighton Vander Esch and special teams ace C.J. Goodwin to injured reserve, although Vander Esch is expected to return later in the year. Adding to the worries, this was the first time the projected starting offensive line was all on the field together. They were ineffectual, as Prescott was sacked four times and the rushing game could only muster 57 yards.
That set the stage for the road trip to face the Chargers. Before the games were played on Sunday, Dallas was two games back of the 49ers and Eagles and faced the possibility of falling three behind if they could not find a way to win in Los Angeles. Things changed dramatically thanks to the unexpected wins by the Cleveland Browns and the Jets to make the standings more favorable. They just had to figure out how to win.
They did, overcoming a whole pile of their own mistakes, a bizarre turnover on what was ruled a muffed punt, and benefiting from the Chargers’ own miscues. It was a badly needed response to the humiliation at the hands of San Francisco, a display of resiliency and some mental toughness. The red zone issue was a bit better as they scored two times in four trips, and the ones when they settled for field goals were largely conservative decisions by McCarthy that worked out in the end. The defense bedeviled Justin Herbert all game, peaking at the right time with the only sack and interception of him on back-to-back plays after the final two-minute warning to nail the coffin shut on this one.
But there were still warts, particularly the eleven penalties, plus others that were not accepted. The offensive line continued to struggle, with Prescott sacked five times and avoiding others with sometimes incredible escapes, including the longest play of the game, the 60-yard catch-and-run by Tony Pollard, who made his own Houdini move to spin out of a tackle and race downfield to set up the eventual two-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks to retake the lead. Had Los Angeles not been so mistake prone themselves, with nine penalties of their own and multiple missed passes by Herbert, this could easily have swung the other way.
Now they have to work on their own problems. The offensive line needs to try and find their mojo, those flags have to be cut down, and they need to be able to move the ball without resorting to Prescott playing hero ball. The defense needs to keep up the pressure they put on Herbert throughout that game and get home more. They also need to continue their strong showing against the run they displayed, one of the biggest reversals from the 49ers debacle.
Can they? That is the million dollar question, and one we aren’t sure about. One thing that may help is that six of their final eleven games are at home, which has become a much more friendly place for them. Dan Quinn had his defense back in a good place after the near total breakdown against San Francisco. McCarthy’s Texas Coast offense, however, remains a work in progress with the running game sputtering and an over-reliance on short passes and Prescott’s ability to create when things start to break down. The only constantly reliable thing they seem to have is the leg of Brandon Aubrey, whose streak of made field goals and extra points just keeps stretching out after his lone miss of the season on his very first point after attempt in the New Jersey rain. While his kick to take the 20-17 lead that the defense made stand up was welcome, that was a risky move that relied on the defense and Herbert’s frequently erratic throws continuing after Los Angeles had used up all their time outs.
It all depends on which way this team goes after the bye week to rest up and work on things. It also hinges on which personality shows up each week for a team that keeps looking so different from game to game. There are some clearly tough matches ahead, including both Eagles games, the Buffalo Bills, the Miami Dolphins, and the Detroit Lions. First up will be the Los Angeles Rams, and they are not a team that can be overlooked.
It could be a wild ride the rest of the way. Dallas sits just one game behind the conference leaders, and the path to the playoffs is so much easier after the nail-biting win on Monday night.
At least we have a week off to give those fingernails a rest.